Eli V. Manuscript says he kept his performance tame at the debut of his "The Empty Room" reading series earlier this month in Providence. Wearing pantyhose, he ground up purple pastels with a mortar and pestle and then flung the powder on his Vaseline-smeared face.
ARTIST AT WORK Manuscript. (Photo by Tabitha Piseno)
If that doesn't sound particularly low-key, then perhaps you're not familiar with Manuscript's onstage history. Over his last few years as a performance artist and musician, he's threaded needles through his skin, hoisted himself upside-down from pipes and rafters, and lassoed himself onstage to his partner in life and art, Maralie Armstrong. (Together they form the band Humanbeast, described as "scary, gross, and gorgeous at the same time," by Jersey City radio station WFMU.)
When I meet him at his home studio on the city's West Side to discuss the reading series and new book — a serially-released, self-published "hermaphroditic novel" titled The Madness of the Canary — he seems most interested in talking about writing, though, not performing. "I can't stop," he says at one point, citing periods of "hypergraphia," the all-encompassing urge to write. "It's my primary artistic expression."
Hobbling around with the aid of a crutch after a recent knee surgery, he excitedly describes his creative process: free writing furiously, scrambling the text using Internet-based algorithms, then finely polishing the jumbled product to achieve just the right effect. (Manuscript will enroll in Brown's E-Writing MFA program this fall.)
The resulting book is less concerned with traditional plotlines and clear-cut characters than conveying the mood of an omnivorously sexual, chaotic, whiskey-tinged world in which characters are ceremoniously shaved and bodily fluids fly.
Speaking of bodily fluids, Manuscript leads me into an adjoining room where he keeps copies of the book's first installment, titled "I. First House — Argot of Failure." As advertised on his blog, the first 50 editions are indeed stamped with a coin-sized blotch of the author's blood.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
IS YOUR KNEE INJURY PERFORMANCE-RELATED? Oh, sure. The final time I popped it out of the socket, I was doing a V. Manuscript reading. Very gentle: I had a rope tied to a doorknob, across a room full of people, that was [covered] in a rice flour with some perfume oils in it. And I was just stepping over the crowd . . . and then, yeah, popped it right out of the socket like halfway during the reading.
DID PEOPLE KNOW SOMETHING WAS WRONG? ISN'T PART OF YOUR PERFORMANCE ABOUT WATCHING SOMEONE GO THROUGH UNCOMFORTABLE THINGS? I broke out into a panicked sweat. I sped up my reading. But, yeah, that's totally normal. Most people didn't know. I hate to use a word like "masochism," because of what that entails, but I think sometimes, historically, that's accurate [to describe my performances.] It started out pretty intense. I started doing amplified cuttings. So I would take knife blades, box cutters, different things, and I would connect microphones to the metal of the objects and I would actually do physical cuttings with the sound audible. I learned a lot in those periods. I had a lot of people tell me they didn't want to be there. In sports, something like breaking an ankle isn't very extreme. You watch it on television. It's like, you want your racecar drivers to crash in this kind of weird way. But if you had two football players come on stage and say, "Hi, my name's Larry." "My name's Frank." "I'm gonna break Frank's ankle. Everyone ready?" And Larry takes Frank's ankle and just like slowly broke it and they were both really calm, it would actually be a lot more intense in a lot of ways. I think that's a very good example of the type of violence I'm interested in — things that are a lot more vague. Is this something that should be happening or not? Is this safe? Or moral? There aren't necessarily correct answers.